Bringing It

Bringing It #95: Centering Civic Learning: Innovative Departments and National Movement-Building

December 02, 2022

Dear friends,

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have launched an impressive array of programs that advance the democratic mission of higher education: community partnership centers, service-learning courses, public scholarship projects, and initiatives to encourage students’ electoral engagement. These are often transformational for the students who take part—but they are rarely available to or expected of all students. They are important assets on their campus, but they are not often central to the identity of the institution itself. How do we go from such important but targeted innovations to putting civic and community engagement at the heart of the institution, at the heart of the academy?

Today’s Bringing It offers some clues about the work it will take. Part of that work takes place on the ground, and the post below from our friends at Montclair State University offers a terrific example of civic innovation at the departmental level. Montclair is one of several institutions in the Bonner Network working to expand civic education across the curriculum—even in disciplines like math, which might seem less amenable to public engagement. (AAC&U’s “Civic Learning in the Major” project, led by BT2P board member Caryn McTighe Musil, is another important initiative to embed democratic education into departmental curricula.)

But such on-the-ground, local change-work needs to be connected to high-level national efforts to make civic education an expected practice of all institutions for all students. The Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition (of which BT2P is a partner) is launching an important series of Planning and Action Forums to mobilize such a movement. The first Forum—virtual and open to all—will take place on December 13 and 14. See the details below. We hope to see you there.

Lastly, we point to two readings from distinguished educational leaders that underscore another important way for colleges to advance democratic education: through neighborly commitments to their communities. Elaine Maimon (former president of Governors State University and a member of our Paradigm Project Working Group) offers an eloquent op-ed about the importance of neighborhoods to democracy and the imperative for colleges and universities to be good neighbors. (Elaine writes regularly for The Philadelphia Citizen, and her columns are great reading.) Richard Guarasci, former president of Wagner College, expands on this theme in his book Neighborhood Democracy: Building Anchor Partners Between Colleges and Their Communities. Richard argues powerfully that such local “anchor partnerships” are crucial to the health of both community life and higher ed. For both of these leaders, democracy—and great education—live in the neighborhood.

Creating Community-Engaged Pathways

For the past 30 years, Montclair State University has been an active participant in the national community and civic engagement movement, and we have been eager to leverage opportunities to grow and advance the work institutionally. So, in 2020, when the Bonner Foundation announced its Community Engaged Learning Initiative(CELI), leaders in our Center for Community Engagement (CCE) recognized an opportunity to embed civic learning and democratic engagement into departmental curricula.

Launched in AY 2021, The Civic Learning Demonstration Project: Pursuing Frameworks for Engaged Departments, convened faculty representatives of four departments (spanning diverse disciplines) to explore the concepts of community engaged departments grounded in the values of social responsibility and the public good. Faculty attended six sessions on designing and mapping  curricular pathways, articulated departmental goals and objectives, learned about community engaged and civic-minded pedagogies, and conceptualized frameworks for their departments.

CEMP (Community Engaged Math Program Plan)

Although we are still at the start of the Community Engaged Learning Initiative, it is already having an impact on departmental priorities. For example, the Math Department has developed a plan for integrating civic minded-pedagogy and community engagement into its curriculum and co-curricular programs (see the accompanying chart).

Math faculty are developing new, community-based courses, and the department initiated the STEM Corps Fellowship, funding students to lead community engagement projects with local, national, and international impact. The department has also submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation’s IUSE (Improving Undergraduate STEM Education) Program aimed at involving faculty and students with community partners in reciprocal ventures, while meeting teaching and research requirements.

Other departments are moving along with their own plans. Faculty in World Languages and Cultures, for instance, are developing a partnership with a local school district to serve Haitian student immigrants. Anthropology faculty are co-leading community-engaged programs in Urban Humanities and a Native American and Indigenous Studies minor. It’s still early to know the full impact of the initiative.  Yet it is clear that Bonner CELI has catalyzed significant reconsideration of departmental missions and pedagogical approach.

CLDE Planning and Action Forums

As readers of Bringing It may remember, BT2P is a partner of the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition (CLDE) and a signatory to its Statement of Commitments. The Coalition’s mission is to make civic learning and democratic participation a core element of the college experience for all students. At a time of democratic crisis, this couldn’t be more urgent, and we are proud to be part of the effort. 

CLDE is offering a series of five Planning and Action Forums, titled College Civic Learning for an Engaged Democracy. The first Forum–virtual, free, and open to all–will take place on Dec. 13 and 14. You can check out the agenda here and register here. We will be there. Please join us in December and for all five Forums.

What We’re Reading

Thanks for staying in touch, contributing to our work, and for all that you do,

David, Paul, Todd, Tammy, and Gianna